Why Botswana: Politics, Personality, and the Future

Why was Botswana so successful in implementing and maintaining these economic policies? Well, as has been argued by Acemoglu, Robinson, and Johnson, this is because of the institutions of private property present in pre-colonial Botswana. These were never seriously threatened nor damaged by their colonizers and, therefore, after the British’ departure they remained strong as ever.

These institutions, “protect the property rights of actual and potential investors, provide political stability, and ensure that the political elites are constrained by the political system and the participation of a broad cross-section of the society.” (Acemoglu, 3) The institutions of private property provided effective property rights for a broad swath of society, which allows them to secure their right to invest and engage in the economy. Political stability and the constraint of the elites are vital for the maintenance of these rights.

So what are the institutions of private property in Botswana? The first is the tradition of public forums called kgotla. Herein, all adult males were allowed some semblance of free expression and the ability to criticize the King and the aristocracy. This was a system that was unique to the Tswana.

Another institution was the private ownership of cattle, which was a mainstay for most Batswana. While the land was collectively owned, the cattle were not. These herds belonged to the King and other aristocrats and non-cattle owners were expected to provide political support in exchange for their use. Another important institutional feature of Botswana is that the political elite, cattlemen, and chiefs, were never in fear of losing their institutional power. This incentivized them to not oppose the system but to work with it.

At the same time, Botswana is relatively homogeneous in comparison to other African nations. Around 50% of the population are actually ethnic Tswana. And there were and are significant efforts on the part of the Tswana to integrate other groups into the broader society. Unfortunately, this is often at the expense of minority groups like the San. These institutions came into early use with the ascendency of Botswana’s first president; Seretse Khama.

An heir to a chiefdom himself, Khama, due to his unpopular marriage to an English woman, was forced to give up his chieftainship to return to Botswana after studying in Britain. Herein, he emerged as one of the leaders of the Batswana independence movement. The Batswana achieved this goal, with Khama himself handling the negotiations with the British. In opposition to the formation of the socialist-leaning Botswana People’s Party (BPP), Khama established the Bechuanaland Democratic Party, later renamed the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).

The BDP integrated with the existing structure of chiefs and newly emerging civil service. “The particular political strength of the BDP coalition was that they could integrate within the party the traditional rural structure of loyalty.” (Acemoglu, 15) This is evident by the fact that in the early years, the Botswana assembly was dominated by cattle ranchers, with the main focus of the earliest infrastructure efforts being rural and specifically focused on cattle. From this, the BDP was able to establish a coalition that would win them every election since independence to the present day, with very little evident corruption.

During his first years as president, Khama made an important decision by effectively centralizing the state away from the chiefs. This was done not only in the governing structure where a chief may be removed by the president from the House of Chiefs but most importantly by passing the Mines and Minerals Act (1967). This act shifted mineral rights away from the tribes to the national government. This ultimately discouraged power-grabs by individual chiefs and limited the power of chiefs as a whole.

Unlike many other newly independent African nations, Botswana resisted the call to “indigenize” the bureaucracy until a suitable number of Batswana could be educated to take over. To quote Khama himself, “My government is deeply conscious of the dangers inherent in localizing the public services too quickly. Precipitate or reckless action in this field could have disastrous effects on the whole programme of services and development of the government.” This allowed the country to maintain an effective civil service, even if it was not native.

It was fortuitous for the nascent Batswana state that such a steady hand presided over its early years. Khama and his successors were able to stick firmly to the policies that allowed Botswana to rise from nothing. As Hillbom states, “the Botswana political elite has shown an ability to govern both peacefully and prudently.” The coalition that Khama and his BDP managed to create has become so entrenched in national politics that they have yet to experience any sort of real challenge to their nearly seven-decade governance of Botswana. There have been periods of challenge of course, namely in the 1970s, but the BDP has remained strong and at the same time relatively responsive to the reforms necessary to keep their party in power.

This, however, leads to a problem that Mogalakwe and Nyamnjoh and other academics have pointed out as being the soft authoritarian tendencies of the Botswana government. This is characterized by a top-down presidency, with a powerful executive branch, and a weak parliament. The country has been characterized as having a procedural view of democracy and not a true liberal democracy. As Mogalakwe and Nyamnjoh state, “the dominant party system has also led to the blurring of lines of demarcation between the state and the ruling party.”

This is brought up to highlight the potential problems that this structure of government will lead to as Botswana advances, and there are many problems. As Hillbom states, “The most serious socio-economic threat is the estimated 24% prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the productive population.” This will and does have a disastrous effect on Batswana society, but their economy and life expectancy will shorten as a result of the spread.

The country is also mired in a tremendously high rate of unemployment, which hovers around 20% on average. The cause of this is that the country has managed to grow economically, but not develop. The main driver of the economy is still mining, which only employs a small portion of the population. Despite the best efforts of the government, it remains the case that the economy is still heavily dependent on its, diamonds. As Hillbom states, “Botswana's significant economic and political advances make up a clear case of growth and not development[.]”

This comparative bad news is to not castigate or renege on the claim that Botswana is an African success story. It is merely brought up to properly frame the country, not in how we wish it to be but how it is. Botswana is a unique case no matter how you look at it.

They avoided any heavy European incursions in the country, which allowed for native institutions of private property to remain intact. They also possessed extremely valuable mineral deposits that in one sense blessed them, but in another sense could have just as easily damned them as it has for so many others. These policies were only possible thanks to the firm leadership that the country possessed early on with the likes of Seretse Khama.

So can the Botswana model be applied to the rest of Africa? Yes and no. The economic principles that Botswana has been able to maintain have allowed the country to rise to a middle-income country. These principles are relatively universal. However, the problem with making this a general model is Botswana has its own unique society and culture. Countries with very different people or histories will be unable or unwilling to do what they have done. At the same time, the democracy that Botswana has been able to establish is one based on a broad coalition, which is not present in many other countries. This is also combined with the fact that there is the threat of authoritarianism from having a country so dominated by one party as Botswana is. The success of Botswana is that they were able to adapt to their situation using the institutions and instincts already present in their society. This is the lesson for the rest of Africa. That they must find their own way, with their own systems.


Acemoglu, Daron, and et al. “An African Success Story: Botswana.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2001, doi:10.2139/ssrn.290791. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=290791

Hillbom, Ellen. “Diamonds or Development? A Structural Assessment of Botswana's Forty Years of Success.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 46, no. 2, 2008, pp. 191–214., doi:10.1017/s0022278x08003194. www.jstor.org/stable/30225921

Mogalakwe, Monageng, and Francis Nyamnjoh. “Botswana at 50: Democratic Deficit, Elite Corruption and Poverty in the Midst of Plenty.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies, vol. 35, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1–14., doi:10.1080/02589001.2017.1286636. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02589001.2017.1286636?src=recsys

Sarraf, Maria, and Moortaza Jiwanji. “Beating the Resource Curse: the Case of Botswana .” The World Bank, The World Bank, 31 Oct. 2001, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/412021468227707937/Beating-the-resource-curse-the-case-of-Botswana

“Botswana .” Central Intelligence Agency: The World Factbook , Central Intelligence Agency, www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/botswana/#introduction.


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